Discomfort and Discipline

I don’t like discomfort.  None of us do, do we?  I’ve recognized and written about my inclination to stop something before I actually have to.  This is as true of pigeon pose in yoga as it is of a writing a difficult paragraph.  I think it has something to do with fear that pain is coming next, and the preemptive conclusion that I cannot do it.   My strong instinct – and, I’d aver, a pretty universal one – is to stop doing whatever it is that’s causing the discomfort.  In fact, in some ways, I think actual pain is preferable to discomfort.  Don’t you?

Leo of Zen Habits wrote last month that if you can “master discomfort, you can master the universe.”  He’s not kidding.  His practical discussion of how to learn to live with discomfort is as compelling and his enumeration of the enormous benefits of this is convincing.  I agree with him.

Is there any difference between living with discomfort and having discipline?  Aren’t these two ways of saying the same thing?  I suspect they might be.  As Leo says, it’s discomfort that keeps us from eating healthily, exercising regularly, and people who do these things are often said to have discipline.

I am often told I am disciplined.  It’s true I get up in the pitch dark and run outside early in the morning, and I go to bed at 10pm almost every night and I hardly drink wine anymore because it interferes with my sleep.  I know, I know: try to contain your awe at my thrilling life.  But it’s funny, I don’t think of myself as disciplined.  The truth is that none of these things are uncomfortable for me.  Well, maybe that’s not strictly true: I can’t remember a single time that I’ve heard the alarm at 5:30 and leapt out of bed gleefully.  But I also can’t remember a single time I haven’t been glad I went.

Discomfort, and the correlated discipline to live with it, must, like the rest of human existence, be absolutely individual.  So, while others lack the discipline to fit exercise into their day, I lack the discipline to truly commit when things get hard.  Next time I am in pigeon, and my hip is aching, and I feel a surge of boredom and desire to leave, I will try to remember: be here now.  The discomfort won’t kill me.  I will remember Leo’s assertion that living with discomfort is the road to living a fuller, richer life.  I believe that is true.  But, like all things, translating it from my brain to my body and heart is no simple thing.

What do you think about discomfort?  And are you a disciplined person?  In what ways?

25 thoughts on “Discomfort and Discipline”

  1. I am very disciplined in some ways, and not so much in others. Possibly these areas of my life where I lack discipline correlate with the areas that bring me the most discomfort. You’ve given me something to think about, Lindsey.

  2. Very timely post as I have been feeling a great deal of discomfort in a number of ways recently – mostly emotional, driven by uncertainty about things and (yes as you point out) the possibility that pain is coming. I agree that focusing on the present is helpful. I constantly tell myself that “right now all is ok.” One of my very first mentors gave me some great advice which is “Wait to Worry” — and I use that often. If I start to go down a rat hole of discomfort, I remind myself that the pain isn’t a reality yet. May never be. And that helps. Thanks for sharing your (always poignant) thoughts on this today.

  3. Waiting to worry is a big challenge for me, too – in fact, the things I worry about the most are those over which I have the least control. But you’re right, that road leads straight down a messy rathole. xox

  4. Yes, I agree completely that tolerating discomfort & discipline go hand in hand. I read that post recently, too, and have been thinking about it. I used to be quite disciplined about many things (food, studying, exercise) and as life has gotten more difficult—requiring more patience & willpower overall, i find I don’t have the discipline left for those types of things. I realize my eating habits reflect my fear of the discomfort of hunger, and that is something I am working on. Not even sure where that came from, I’ve been extremely privileged to have never known hunger.
    Lots to think about…

  5. Discomfort is what often pushes us into new directions, and requires courage and discipline to endure it. I am very disciplined in most areas of my life, but sometimes come up against areas that I just can’t get past…and then I stop and wonder why. Sometimes I figure it out, sometimes I push through, and sometimes I put it to the side. Thanks for the great post.

  6. I’d say I’m the same, and am realizing there is much to discover about myself in thinking hard about what’s hard and what’s easy when it comes to being disciplined about it … xo

  7. Love this topic (of course). I find I’m a confusing combination of two things. I have an amazing will and drive, and my success in my career comes from the ability to make myself do boring, tedious, scary, risky, exposing, unpleasant things. Yet in my personal life, I struggle with discipline, especially as it relates to what I eat. I’ve puzzled this over and over and over… There’s a relationship, a link, I can’t quite see. Is it that my work success comes from a self-abnegation, so the eating is return to a misguided self-care or self-indulgence? The last time I lost a lot of weight, I did it by intentionally channeling the discipline I know I possess, and turning it on myself. I lost 35 pounds in ten weeks and kept it off for three years, largely helped by becoming addicted to how good running felt with so much less weight on my body. When my parents got sick, I lost my running and my good eating habits, along with my sense of a forever home, so I understand how I could gain everything I’d lost and many pounds more. But I’m wondering when my discipline will kick in and make it easy to say no again, to feed myself with good habits and self-appreciation rather than food. I don’t mind discomfort; in many ways I seek it out. I find the dissonance a rewarding challenge: I want to see if I can put my hand in the fire and hold it there, until I feel it burn. My larger hope is that as I’m reassembling myself bit by bit (no parents, no boyfriend, end of career, end of media as we know it, end of certainty, end of everything) that I will mesh my ability to push myself into discomfort and my inability to keep myself from mindless self-indulgence together, like two globs of Play-Doh, and end up with a single me, not one extreme or the other, but integrated, whole, and free.

  8. I LIke this quote I read in LIving Your Yoga by Judith Lasater

    “Discipline is quality not quantity.”

    She talks about how discipline and freedom are intertwined and that discipline is not synonymous with judgement, the notion that we have to do this because…. name your reason what ever it is.

    Discipline as quality means doing what you can consistently. Staying with something until it is enough for that moment, then giving yourself permission to gently move on. Then repeat with the same presence the next time you approach the same task or event.

    I am reminded that to study something particular is called a discipline… to be absorbed into ,the learning, the principles;kind of like getting lost in a book that takes us somewhere we’ve not been before.
    I believe that being mindful is just that … fill the mind and be joyful; or if joy is asking too much,be at least understanding of where you are at this particular time in your life,day,…

  9. I feel confident you are moving to a place where you are integrated, whole, and free … but I so relate to the tangled questions of why it is we are able to be “disciplined” in certain aspects of our lives (or at certain times). xox

  10. What a wonderful reminder: a study of something is a discipline. I’d forgotten that. So maybe I am a disciple of presence. It is a discipline, a practice, this life of yours, isn’t it?

  11. What a great post. I struggle mightily with discomfort! I get up at 530 too and practice yoga. I hate getting up but I love when it’s done. I also stripped drinking in the week because it makes me anxious. What I struggle with is my diet – ill eat really really well and then I worry it will be hard so I eat a bowl of ice cream I don’t even want. I just did a cleanse and quit on thenthird day after the hardest part just because infreaked out. i also struggle with the discipline to write.

  12. I love this post! I hardly think of myself as disciplined yet right now, very recently pregnant (!) I am incredibly discipined. I found it so easy to abstain from coffee, wine and bad food all because I am taking care of the growing life inside of me. I am also finding it so much easier to get up four mornings a week and go to yoga or spin all because I think I am being healthy for the baby. Why, though, can’t I use that same level of discipline when I’m just taking care of me? Hmm. Lots to think about! Hope you are surviving the storm!

  13. Great post on a great topic, Lindsey. My experience is that mastering discomfort may not be possible. Despite my desire to avoid it, discomfort may be one of the best friends I have because it helps me feel more alive. Long ago, I realized that more important than being happy and comfortable, is being alive and awake to ever-deeper connections, discoveries and possibilities. I’ve found that discipline can sometimes be an avoidance of discomfort, a way to navigate around it and thus miss its enlivening benefits. Simply not turning away from life and the natural discomfort change brings has enriched me in ways I never expected or thought possible. Rather than master discomfort, I’ve attempted to befriend it and allow it to reveal unexpected gems.

  14. I so like the way you think about this. And you are right, I think, that in some ways discipline can actually allow us to avoid discomfort, rather than stream straight into it. xo

  15. That is very interesting, isn’t it, that we’re more comfortable putting the needs of others at the top of the list, than our own?

  16. Very thought provoking.

    I’ve often thought of how we all underestimate the things we do that come easily to us. I, for instance, will look at a lawyer or mathematician and be awe struck at their mind’s ability to do THAT. But, I don’t think of my gifts as such because they are easier–just threads of my fabric. The idea that life or activities require more discipline when they are more challenging is spot on.


  17. This post raises interesting questions for me. Discomfort, pain, fear: We tend to cast these feelings in a negative light, but sometimes they are giving us important information. When is discomfort something we should push through, and when is it something we should STOP and listen to?

    Even with exercise, this is not simple for me. Sometimes I push through, even though I really don’t want to, and I’m rewarded with a migraine. For these reasons, “discipline” isn’t the most useful concept for me. Or, perhaps it is that I need to become more disciplined in looking and listening deeply, to know what is running underneath my surface feelings.

  18. This is such a thought-provoking point, because I think you’re right: discipline can be interpreted as always pushing ourselves, harder, faster, whatever. The truth is, I think it’s more what you say, learning to listen, to tune in, to really figure out what we need. Of course that’s a difficult thing to do …
    Thank you for your thoughts.

  19. Oh, the pidgeon pose! My least favorite, yet my inner thighs and hamstrings always need this! I was glad when my yoga teacher made us hold it extra long last week because it’s something I won’t do on my own. I guess I look for co-miseration when I do something uncomfortable/requires discipline. The thought of exercising with my “people” at lunchtime as we push through tough workouts makes them easier to bear. And then I’m glad there are people like you to help me “push through” the hard parts of life and parenting… thanks.

  20. I’ve never smoked or taken illegal drugs. Since I was in college, I’ve exercised regularly. I’ve written over 1,000 blog posts since 2001. I read several books per week. Until recently, I never drank coffee, though I just picked up the habit for health reasons.

    None of these things have anything to do with discipline. Rather, they are all about developing habits and sticking with them.

    No one has enough willpower (AKA executive function) to always make the right choice. Instead, we need to craft our lives and environments to make the right choice the same as the brainless choice.

    I make my laziness work for me! That’s why people think that I’m disciplined.

  21. I don’t totally know what the difference is between sticking with habits and discipline … perhaps different ways of saying the same thing? How are you liking coffee? I love it :).

  22. Yes, this resonates with me so much. I think most people would say I’m disciplined — I homeschool two kids, fit writing in every day, work out on a regular schedule. But that’s exactly it — I’m comfortable with schedules. For me, the real challenge of discipline is continuing with a task that makes me uncomfortable. Then, I balk. Here’s to carrying on, soul-sister!

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